Making an Impact: Labor's Litigation to Achieve Social and Economic Justice

58 Pages Posted: 19 Jun 2011 Last revised: 28 Jun 2011

See all articles by Jaime A. Eagan

Jaime A. Eagan

Harvard University - Law School - Alumni

Date Written: June 18, 2011


The image that naturally comes to mind when one thinks of a labor union is that of a bargaining representative and an advocate for wronged union employees – an organization that fights to obtain better wages and working conditions for employees than they could negotiate on their own, and that represents employees in any grievances with their employer. For much of the twentieth century, that was an accurate depiction of labor unions, which were focused almost solely on unionizing unionized workplaces and on providing services to union members. Any political action employed by unions were focused on greater gains for employees in the workplace, and any litigation waged was focused on these same goals. However, unions have increasingly embraced the role of an advocate for workers generally, often partnering with other organizations and social movements, and have engaged in political activity to address social and economic concerns of broad constituencies – union members and non-members alike. Scholars have clearly described some forms of political action utilized by labor unions and their partners, documenting in detail union involvement in lobbying, voter registration drives, and political contributions. But thus far, scholars have largely failed to address the ways in which labor unions have used impact litigation as a tool for broad social change. From mass tort litigation, to election and voter registration challenges, to education financing scheme cases, unions have demonstrated their commitment to the American working class as a whole. Although some examples of such impact litigation arise out of workplace conditions – such as union involvement in asbestos litigation and repetitive stress injury product liability lawsuits – other examples of union impact litigation are seemingly unconnected to the workplace – such as challenges to immigration laws that seem to promote racial profiling and challenges to voter registration restrictions that disenfranchise working-class voters.

This paper will examine the various conceptions of labor unions and discuss how union involvement in impact litigation demonstrates yet another way that unions behave as social actors invested in the betterment of the working class as a whole. The paper proceeds as follows: Part I will discuss the two primary conceptions of labor union – that simply of a business representative for union members, and that of an advocate for broad social change – and address how unions seem to have evolved from the first conception toward the second conception over the last thirty years. It will also discuss the tools used by unions with a broad self-conception of the role of labor movement in society, including alliances with other social movements and organizations, and political action tools already documented by scholars. Part II will explore in detail, as has never been done before, the labor movement’s involvement in impact litigation – cases that directly affect the workplace (such as wage and hour lawsuits), cases indirectly affecting the workplace (such as repetitive stress injury product liability actions), and cases that have seemingly no direct connection to the workplace (such as litigation challenging the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans or state voter registration restrictions). Finally, Part III will discuss the significance of the labor movement’s involvement in impact litigation. It will describe what this political action tool says about the role, and it will discuss the benefits and concerns of labor’s use of impact litigation to achieve social change objectives.

Keywords: labor unions, social movement, impact litigation

Suggested Citation

Eagan, Jaime A., Making an Impact: Labor's Litigation to Achieve Social and Economic Justice (June 18, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

Jaime A. Eagan (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Law School - Alumni ( email )

5163 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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